Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Unveiling of the Knute Rockne Commemorative Stamp at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana

March 09, 1988

Thank you. And, Moose, when I was young and reading about George Gipp, I never thought I'd come back as the Gipper. [Laughter] Well, thank you, Reverend Malloy and Governor, Lieutenant Governor, distinguished guests. And a special hello to the Rockne family. I brought with me Dick Lyng, our Secretary of Agriculture and Notre Dame's representative in the Cabinet, and the five—not the four—horsemen from Congress—South Bend's own Jack Hiler, our quarterback in this effort. You'll recognize one of America's truly great sports legends and four other distinguished alumni: Joe McDade, Dan Lungren, Dave Martin, and Ben Blaz.

It's a pleasure to visit once again the home of the Fighting Irish. With St. Patrick's Day coming up and after seeing those film clips, it brings to mind another deathbed scene. You know, apparently the town rogue of one small Irish hamlet lay on his deathbed as the priest prepared for the atonement. "Do you renounce the devil?" "Do you renounce him and all his works?" the priest asked. And the rogue opened one eye and said, "Father, this is no time for making enemies." [Laughter]

But, it's great to be back here. I've said this before, but I want you to know the first time I ever saw Notre Dame was when I came here as a sports announcer, 2 years out of college, to broadcast a football game. You won, or I wouldn't have mentioned it. [Laughter] And then, of course, I was here with Pat O'Brien and a whole host of Hollywood stars for the world premier of "Knute Rockne." Now, let me explain, I may be saying the name differently, but when we made the picture we were told, and Bonnie [Mrs. Knute Rockne] upheld it to us, that it was Knute—not Knute. So, you'll have to get used to me saying it that way.

"Knute Rockne: All American"—how I had wanted to make that movie and play the part of George Gipp. Of course, the goal was—or the role was a young actor's dream: It had a great entrance, an action middle, and a death scene right out of the opera. [Laughter] But it was more than that. I know that to many of you today Rockne is a revered name, a symbol of greatness and, yes, a face now on a postage stamp. But my generation, well, we actually knew the legend as it happened. We saw it unfold, and we felt it was saying something important about us as a people and a nation. And there was little room for skepticism or cynicism; we knew the legend was based on fact.

I would like to interject here, if I could, that it's difficult to stand before you and make you understand how great that legend was at that time. It isn't just a memory here and of those who knew him, but throughout this nation he was a living legend. Millions of Americans just automatically rooted for him on Saturday afternoon and rooted, therefore, for Notre Dame. Now, of course, the Rockne legend stood for fair play and honor, but you know, it was thoroughly American in another way. It was practical. It placed a value on devastating quickness and agility and on confounding the opposition with good old American cleverness. But most of all, the Rockne legend meant this—when you think about it, it's what's been taught here at Notre Dame since her founding: that on or off the field, it is faith that makes the difference, it is faith that makes great things happen.

And believe me, it took faith—and a lot of it—for an unknown actor to think that he could get the part of George Gipp. I was under contract to Warner Brothers, but I had been all over the studio talking about my idea for a story. Having come from sports announcing to the movies, I said I thought that the movies ought to make the life story of Knute Rockne. And then one day I picked up the Daily Variety and read where Warner Brothers was announcing that they were making the life story of Knute Rockne and were starting to cast the film. Well, all I'd ever wanted was to play the Gipper if they some day made the film. And I approached Pat O'Brien, who was going to play Rockne—he'd been my choice—and he told me bluntly that I talked too much and that's where Warner's got the idea. [Laughter] And I told him what my ambition was, and he said, "Well, they're looking for a name actor." But Pat did intervene with the head of the studio, the top producer, Hal Wallis. Hal was, to put it mildly, unimpressed with my credentials. [Laughter] He started by telling me I didn't look big enough for the part.

Well, I wasn't very polite, because I told him, "You're producing the picture, and you don't know that George Gipp weighed 5 pounds less than I weigh right now. He walked with a kind of a slouch and almost a limp. He looked like a football player only when he was on the field." And then I went home, because some cameramen had told me that the fellas in the front office, they only knew what they saw on film. And I dug down in the trunk and came up with my own pictures of myself playing football in college and brought them back and showed them to Hal Wallis.

Well, he finally let me do a test for the part, and Pat O'Brien, knowing of my nervousness and desire, graciously agreed to be a part of it and play in the scene with me. Well, of course, I had an advantage. I had known George Gipp's story for years, and the lines were straight from Knute Rockne's diary. And the test scene was one that said something about what Rockne liked to see in his players. It was George Gipp's first practice. You saw that scene where he was told to get into uniform. And Rockne told him to carry the ball, and Gipp just looked back at Rockne and cocked an eyebrow and said, "How far?"

Well; I mentioned all this because, as I say, Knute liked spirit in his ball players. Grantland Rice tells us that once when he was working with the four backfield stars who became known as the "Four Horsemen" the fellow named Jimmy Crowley just couldn't get it right. Now, you know, I never tell ethnic jokes anymore unless they're about the Irish. [Laughter] But in view of the spirit of this occasion, maybe I can be permitted some leeway. Rockne, who, by the way, was Norwegian, was commonly called the "Swede." He finally got exasperated after Crowley muffed a play and hollered, "What's dumber than a dumb Irishman?" And without missing a beat, Crowley shot right back, "A smart Swede." [Laughter]

Well, that was Rockne. And you know, not too long ago I was questioned about the George Gipp story. And this interviewer had really done his research. In fact, he'd even gone back and talked to my old football coach, Ralph McKenzie, at Eureka College, who was 91 years old, and asked him about my football career. Well, now, I've been through a lot of interviews, but believe me, I tensed up at hearing that. And apparently Mac described me as "eager, aggressive, better on defense, overall an average football player—but an outstanding talker." [Laughter]

Well, anyway, I was asked whether I knew that George Gipp was no angel, that he played in some pool games and card games in his time. And of course, that was true, and I said so. But it was also true of George Gipp—and it is legitimately part of the legend—that he used his winnings from those games to buy food for destitute families and to help other students pay their way through Notre Dame. And the reason he got so sick and later died from pneumonia was because he had promised a former teammate who had become a high school coach that he would give his students some pointers. Author James Cox tells us it was during that training session in Chicago that an icy wind blew in across Lake Michigan and the Gipper first felt the ache and sore throat that would lead to the illness that would take his life. You see, there were no miracle drugs in those days. And a promising young life was ended, but the point is, George Gipp couldn't forget a friend.

And I've always thought that it was no mere coincidence that the legend of George Gipp and Knute Rockne emerged from this great institution of higher learning not simply because of its academic excellence but because it stands among the winds of subjectivity for lasting values and principles that are the heart of our civilization and on which all human progress is built—Notre Dame not only educates its students in the development of honesty, courage, and all the other things we call character. Rockne once wrote: "Sportsmanship means fair play. It means having a little respect for the other fellow's point of view. It means a real application of the Golden Rule."

And I know a fine example of this is the charitable care 80 of you students give the handicapped children at the Logan Center. This and other acts of good will say much about your generation. There are those who suggest the 1980's have been characterized by greed. Well, charitable giving is up. I think our detractors are looking in the wrong places. If they want to see the goodness and love of life of this generation, the commitment to decency and a better future, let them come here to Notre Dame. It's a place where the Golden Rule, the legend of Rockne, and the idea of religious faith still live.

Rockne stressed character. He knew, instinctively, the relationship between the physical and moral. That is as true of nations as it is of people. Charles Lindbergh, also a hero of that time, once said: "Short-term survival may depend on the knowledge of nuclear physicists and the performance of supersonic aircraft, but long-term survival depends alone on the character of man." Rockne believed in competition, yet he did not rely on brute force for winning the victory. Instead, he's remembered as the man who brought ingenuity, speed, and agility into this most American of sports.

May I interrupt myself here for a second and tell you something else about him? As a sports announcer, I was told by many of the great coaches in this land whose teams had played against Notre Dame teams under Rockne that one of their hardest problems when playing Notre Dame was that their team worshiped Rockne— [laughter] —that they were fans of his, and that when they came out in the field the first thing they looked for was where was this great, great coach. Rockne, you see, was a man of vision. And that's how he came by his reputation as someone larger than life and a miracle man. Because of his tremendous success in sports, it's easy to forget that he was something else as well, something not too many people knew about him. He was also a man of science, having taught chemistry here at Notre Dame for 4 years. I must believe that he would not be at all surprised at the enormous advances that have taken place over the five decades since his death.

Much has been said about the technological revolution in which we are living. Every time we turn around, it seems to be staring us in the face. Typewriters are being replaced in corporate offices throughout the country by highly efficient word processors. With the almost universal proliferation of copy machines, carbon paper has almost gone the way of the buggy whip. Not only deregulation, but design and technology have made our airlines more efficient.

The American workplace, in recent years, has undergone a dramatic transformation. Just in the last 5 years, manufacturing productivity of our working people has increased 4.7 percent annually. And from the plant floor to the corporate boardroom, there is more cooperation, a sense of common purpose, more of a winning spirit, and state-of-the-art equipment and machinery available to do the job. I've seen it in the many companies that I've visited all across this nation, and I've heard it from the working people themselves. And don't let all the gloom and doomers tell you any different. There's a will to succeed evident in our land. I happen to have always believed in the American people. Don't ever sell them short. Given the proper tools and a level playing ground, our workers can outproduce and outcompete anyone, anywhere.

It's a far different picture than the agonizing sight of a decade ago, when many were counting out American workers and American industry. We were told that Americans would no longer go the extra mile, no longer had the drive to excel; that our country was in decline and that we, as a people, should lower our expectations. Well, today we see an America ready to compete, anxious to compete. In fact, our workers are so productive that foreign companies are opening plants in the United States, sometimes to manufacture products for export to other countries. Our industrial base, contrary to a totally false yet widespread impression, is strong and, in fact, is growing. We've added almost 300,000 manufacturing jobs in the last 6 months, and that trend is continuing. There are over 19 million manufacturing jobs today, about the same as the last 20 years, while manufacturing output is up almost 40 percent over the last 5 years. And unemployment continues to decline. In short, American industry is lean and mean and ready to meet the competition head on. I predict that as this year progresses we will see American manufacturing reemerge as the leading force in the world marketplace. Exports will, in fact, race ahead and lead our domestic economy.

What is propelling our country forward?—that fundamental element of the American character that no tyranny and few of our competitors can ever hope to match. Knute Rockne knew and appreciated it—the creative genius and omnipresent optimism of our people. We had faith in them these last 7 years, and they did the rest. That's why, instead of giving up, we set our sights high. We didn't raise taxes, drain the investment pool, and tell our working people and business leaders to hunker down and prepare for the worst, to lower their expectations. We asked them to dream great dreams, to reach for the stars. We left resources in the private sector that others would have drained into the bureaucracy.

The heavy investment made in our economy during the early part of this decade is paying off now, in a big way. President Franklin Roosevelt once said: "The only limit on our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today." Well, together, we, the American people, have proven the doubters wrong, time and again. We've done it by keeping our eyes on the future, by setting our sights on what can be done rather than on complaining about how much there is to do. We've done it by viewing every problem as an opportunity. I happen to believe in something former astronaut John Swigeft once said: "Technology and commitment can overcome any challenge."

The individual investment made in companies, large and small; the retraining of our work force to handle the jobs in this technological age; the search for new ideas and innovative approaches; the modernization of older industries and investment in the new; energy, creativity, and, yes, hard work on a massive scale throughout our country, from the bottom up—this is the foundation of our prosperity and the impetus for national progress. Our program has been to foster innovation and to keep our country in the forefront of change.

And that's why last year we committed ourselves to building the world's largest particle accelerator, superconducting super-collider to maintain our leadership in high-energy physics research and America's scientific and technological competitiveness. That's why we're developing a space plane that by the end of the century will take off from a runway, but once at high altitude will rocket into near space and zip to its destination at 10 and even 20 times the speed of sound. And that's why I'm proposing to Congress in my fiscal year '89 budget a new Thomas A. Edison prize program, offering monetary awards to any American who can develop workable, ground-breaking technologies that could improve our quality of life. And that's why scientists right here at Notre Dame are blazing trails in superconductivity research, finding ways so that this breakthrough technology can be put to use for the betterment of all mankind. Because someday, because of research being done here, transcontinental railroads will slide heavy cargoes on a magnetic cushion, cheaply and quickly across the country. Perhaps our energy costs will drop below anything we could have imagined a decade ago.

Rockne exemplified the American spirit of never giving up. That spirit is the reason why you and your generation are going to succeed. That's why we're not just going to compete, we're going to win. And that's also why this year we'll see the return of the American space shuttle, symbolic of America's tenacity. We never give up. And I cannot help but believe that the heroes of the Challenger will be cheering along with the rest of us when the United States reclaims its rightful leadership role in leading the conquest of this, the last frontier.

Technology in these last decades has reshaped our lives. It's opened vast opportunity for the common man and has brought all of mankind into one community. Today worldwide communications and transportation have linked productive citizens of every free land. Through advances in medicine, our people are living longer, and the quality of their later years has been vastly improved. I like to remind people that I've already lived some 23 years longer than the average life expectancy when I was born. That's a source of frustration to a number of people. [Laughter]

And you know there are always those who say the problem's too big, it can't be helped, let's prepare for the worst. But a few years ago, we heard that about the drug problem here in America. But a few people, including my roommate, Nancy- [laughter] —said it was time for action, not gloom and doom. And the statistics are starting to show what her commitment and the commitment of millions of others has accomplished. Not only did a recent survey of high school seniors show that one-third fewer seniors acknowledged current use of cocaine in 1987 than the year before, but almost all the students said it was wrong to even try a drug like cocaine.

We still have a long way to go, and when Nancy and I see stories saying just that in the newspaper, we welcome them. But let's also remember that the shock of recognition is not a sign of defeat: It's the beginning of victory. And victory will be ours. And I hope that each of you will join us in saying that drugs hurt, drugs kill, that each of us must just say no to drugs and drug users, and most of all in giving America what America deserves: your very best. And that means a drug free generation. And may I challenge you? Why not? Why not make your generation the one that said, once and for all, no more drugs in the United States of America or the world?

Excellence too is returning to our schools. We've learned what's always been known here at Notre Dame: that values are an essential part of educational excellence. Throughout the Nation, parents and teachers are gaining greater control over local curriculums, emphasizing basics and making their children's education a priority in all of our lives. And they're right to do so, because all of the wonderful gains I've talked about so far, especially those gains built on the growth of technology, depend on young Americans who know how to think, calculate, write, and communicate.

Now, there are those who see a dark side to our technological progress. Yes, they admit our well-being has been enhanced in so many ways. Technological advances now are making it more likely, for example, that our natural resources will be spared as long-haul telephone lines and electrical cable give way to the satellite transmissions and computer chips. I spoke to the young people of Europe not long ago via our WORLDNET system and reminded them that only a short time ago such a transmission would have required thousands of tons of copper wire and other resources. Instead, our talk was transmitted quickly, cheaply, efficiently, almost miraculously from our continent to theirs, via satellite.

Yet it is pointed out that, regretfully, as man has advanced into this new age, so has his capability to kill and destroy; and it's no longer just those in uniform who are victimized. In World War I, more than 8 million military personnel lost their lives and over 12 million civilians died. During the Second World War, almost 20 million in uniform lost their lives; however, there were about 14 million civilians killed. And if there's ever another such conflagration, a Third World War, hundreds of millions will lose their lives. And it's estimated that 90 percent of the casualties will be civilian.

When I was in college, I remember a debate in one of my classes. This was back in the days when the bomber was just being recognized as the potent weapon that it later became in the post-World War I days. Our class debated whether or not Americans-people who, to our way of thinking, stood for high moral standards—would ever drop bombs from an airplane on a city. And the class was about evenly divided. Half felt it might be necessary. The others felt bombing civilians would always be beyond the pale of decency, totally unacceptable human conduct, no matter how heinous the enemy. Well, a decade later, few, if any, who had been in that room objected to our country's wholesale bombing of cities. Civilization's standards of morality had changed. The thought of killing more and more people, noncombatants, became more and more acceptable.

Well, today, technology is pointing toward a way out of this dilemma. It's given us the promise of basing our security in the future on protection rather than the threat of retaliation. SDI offers a chance to reverse not only the nuclear arms buildup but also to reverse the trend that in effect has put a lower and lower value on human life. Technology offers you young people who debate in today's classroom an option that threatens no one and offers a shield rather than ever sharper, more deadly swords. It offers you young people a chance to raise the moral standards of mankind.

When I came here in 1981 for one of the first major addresses of my Presidency, I acknowledged the difficulties we faced in the world, not only the threat of nuclear war but also totalitarian expansion around the world, especially in places like Afghanistan. But I also said that in avoiding these two unacceptable choices of nuclear confrontation or totalitarian rule the West had a secret resource of strength: the spiritual values of our civilization and the essential decency and optimism of our peoples.

And something that got a warm response from you undergraduates, but was treated very skeptically in Washington, was my suggestion that these values were so strong and this inner strength was so great that, in the long run, the West would not contain communism: We would transcend communism, that the era of the nuclear threat and totalitarian darkness would someday be put behind us, that we would look again with all the people of the Earth to the bright, sunlit uplands of world peace, world prosperity, and yes, world freedom. How much has changed since those days. And as we look back at 7 years of peace as well as progress in arms reductions and the hope of a Soviet exit from Afghanistan, we can be pleased that the inner strength of our nation and our civilization is increasingly apparent with every day that passes.

And that inner strength is what Notre Dame and the legend of Rockne are all about. You know, so much is said about Rockne's influence on his ballplayers, but actually he liked to talk about their influence on him. In his autobiography, he described his inability to sleep one night before a big game. So, he was up early in the lobby and saw 2 of his boys come down the stairs and go out, and then others came and followed them. And though he had a pretty good idea of what was going on, he decided to follow along. "They didn't realize it," he said in his diary, "but these youngsters were making a powerful impression on me." And he said, "When I saw them walking up to the Communion rail to receive and realized the hours of sleep they had sacrificed, I understood what a powerful ally their religion was to them in their work on the football field."

And after Rockne found—here at Notre Dame—his own religious faith, a friend of his at the University of Maryland asked him if he minded telling him about it. "Why should I mind telling you?" he said. "You know all this hurry and battling we're going through is just an expression of our inner selves striving for something else. The way I look at it is that we're all here to try and find, each in his own way, the best road to our ultimate goal. I believe I've found my way, and I shall travel it to the end." And travel it to the end be did. And when they found him in the Kansas cornfield where the plane had gone down, they also found next to him a prayer book and at his fingertips the rosary of Notre Dame, the rosary of Our Lady. Someone put it so well at the time: Knute Rockne did more spiritual good than a thousand preachers. His career was a sermon in right living.

Yes, we've seen more change in the last 50 years, since Knute Rockne was with us, than in all the other epics of history combined. You are the beneficiaries of this, and it is you who'll continue the struggle and carry mankind to greater and greater heights. As Americans, as free people, you must stand firm, even when it's uncomfortable for you to do so. It won't always be easy. There will be moments of joy, of triumph. There will also be times of despair, times when all those around you are ready to give up.

It's then I want you to remember our meeting today. And "some time when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, but I'll know about it, and I'll be happy." Good luck in the years ahead, and God bless you all. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke to the students and faculty at I p.m. at the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center. In his remarks, he referred to Moose Krause, a former player on a Rockne team; Father Edward Malloy, president of the University of Notre Dame; Coy. Robert Orr; Lt. Coy. John Mutz; and Representatives John Hiler of Indiana, Joseph McDade of Pennsylvania, Dan Lungren of California, David Martin of New York, and Ben Blaz of Guam. Following his remarks, the President participated in the unveiling of the stamp. He then attended receptions for university officials and guests and for Indiana State Republican Party members. Following the receptions, the President returned to Washington, DC.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Unveiling of the Knute Rockne Commemorative Stamp at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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